What to Look for in a Grad School or Dissertation Mentor

Every graduate student hopes for a mentor who will offer guidance throughout graduate school and beyond. The ideal advisor becomes a mentor. He or she supervises your research, provides insightful feedback and direction, helps you assemble a fantastic dissertation committee, gets you funding, gets you involved in research at a level that earns publications and conference publications, shows you how to review articles and publish, invites you to dinner, becomes a friend, helps you get a job, and mentors you throughout your career. This is a very tall order.

I have a friend from graduate school who is still in contact with her mentor (about two decades later) and they see each other at conferences. Her mentor still offers advice and helps her with career decisions and job searches, if asked. This is pretty close to the ideal, at least my ideal. And yes – I’m super jealous. I don’t know many students with close relationships like this - who became friends with their advisors. The ideal is something to strive for, but most advising relationships fall somewhat short of this ideal.

So, what do you look for in a mentor? Someone who
  • provides support and encouragement
  • helps you to learn from your mistakes
  • offers opportunities for collaboration, joint presentations, and departmental talks
  • helps you to learn about writing and submitting manuscripts for publication
  • is interested in your career area
  • is able to provide support and training in your area
  • models a successful academic career and training in your area
  • is committed to help mentees make the next move in their career development
  • demonstrates personal integrity
  • introduces you to colleagues
  • helps you to identify and work with your strengths and weaknesses
  • provides opportunities for you to develop autonomy
Not every mentor ticks all of these boxes. Look for someone who hits enough of the points that you deem important.

One of the important things to remember about mentoring relationships is that they develop over time. During your first year of grad school you may have an inkling, a gut feeling of who will be a good mentor, but the relationship develops over time and by way of your interactions. Open honest communication is key. Meeting deadlines and thereby supporting your advisor’s research is also important. We often think of mentoring as a one-way street in the sense that the mentor provides benefits to the student, but mentors also get something out of the deal. Mentors get competent help, the satisfaction of having a hand in a student’s success, and leaving a legacy, or more simply, being able to brag about a mentee’s success – even many years later.

Finally, no one person will fulfill all of your mentoring needs. In grad school you may find that your primary mentor, your dissertation advisor, may not be the best person to turn to with questions about teaching or an internship, for example. Seek relationships with multiple faculty who can provide you with advice on various areas of academia. Most of us have several mentors over the course of our careers: mentors for different areas (e.g., teaching and research) and at different times in our professional development (e.g., grad student, post-doc, junior faculty).